Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Charlie Kauffman has finally lost it. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is the most impenetrable movie I’ve seen in years. It operates on several planes of reality, and has absolutely nothing with which I can sympathize. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich are also deeply strange – what saves them is an emotional core that guides audiences through the weirdness. Now Kauffman jettisons any sense of plot or entertainment. Synecdoche, New York is not meant to be watched, but endured.
It starts off relatively normal. Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a sad sack of shit. He thinks he’s dying, there’s blood in his stool, his pupils don’t dilate, and pustules develop on his body. Caden’s wife is bored, and when she goes with her daughter to Berlin, she does not come back. In the midst of all this, Caden receives a MacArthur grant, and decides to embark on a massive theater project: he creates a replica of his life in an empty warehouse, and casts actors to play everyone he knows. Caden finds an actor to play himself, and eventually needs to find an actor to play the actor playing himself. He builds warehouses within warehouses. Being a Charlie Kauffman movie, it all becomes very bizarre, and you’re never quite sure what’s happening, or whether it’s real.
If this is all sounds really self-indulgent, that’s because it is. Caden is a pretentious, boring, depressed megalomaniac. Everyone who helps him is an accessory to his astounding ego. It goes without saying that he never finishes the project, and that we have no sense of his final product. I do not give a fuck about Caden at all. With no solid core, the movie becomes extraordinarily tedious. I writhed in my seat, checked my watch, and was generally uncomfortable. From the looks of it, those in the audience who did not walk out felt the same way. Amidst all this pretense, Kauffman does have a buried message. By focusing on the faux reality of Caden’s play, he forced me to think about my own life. Aren’t I looking for people to satisfy a certain role, over and over again? Am I not the star of my life? Leaving the theater, I found that I was uncommonly introspective, and angry at Kauffman.
Synecdoche, New York is a miserable movie, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Such an indecipherable story plays by its own rules, so one cannot ask basic plot questions like, “Why would so many people devote so much of their time to helping such a miserable asshole?” or “Who the hell thought it’d be a good idea to give this guy a genius grant?” It is true that you might learn something about yourself while watching, but you shouldn’t waste $10 and two hours to do it. Catharsis will come when it’s good and ready. Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” It’s a point nearly identical to the one that Kauffman makes, but unlike Kauffman, Shakespeare made his point in a tolerable way. I would probably understand the movie more if I saw it again, but I absolutely no desire to do so.
Here are other movies in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a sad sack of shit:
The Savages. I’ve noted before how I feel about movies that revolve around characters with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The same essential story gets told every time, and there is no room for innovation. Seeing The Savages is what brought such a conclusion. Here is a movie in which a brother and sister help their father who suffers from dementia. All the characters suffer the same indignities that many others have faced before. Yes, the movie is closely observed, but it offers nothing fresh. Even the actors are typecast. Once again, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an intelligent, sullen misanthrope. Once again, Laura Linney plays an intelligent, neurotic woman whose best years are behind her. While watching the movie, I got the feeling that everyone was going through the motions of making another funny/sad family drama. Only one scene, when Hoffman explains the true motivation for getting a luxurious old-folks home, has any real insight or resonance. The Savages is worse than bad – it’s ordinary.
Happiness. I saw this one four years ago when I first got Netflix. Aside from the convenience of DVDs mailed to your door, I began the subscription because unlike Blockbuster, Netflix carries NC-17 movies. Happiness was the first NC-17 movie to arrive, and still lingers in my memory. It tells the story of a group of lonely sexual deviants. Hoffman plays Allen, a loser defined by his sex fantasies. Allen eventually gets the nerve to call Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) and says violently sexual things. Of course Helen is intrigued, but Allen does not have the stones to follow through with the phone call’s promise. Hoffman does a great job here, but the most memorable performance belongs to Dylan Baker, who plays Bill the pedophilic father. Bill rapes a young boy, and when he gets caught, Bill has an excruciating conversation with his son. These plotlines sound excessively miserable, but writer/director Todd Solondz keeps the movie watchable by infusing heartbreaking scenes with pitch-black humor. Even the scene will Bill and his son gets an unexpected laugh.
Owning Mahowny. Hoffman plays the titular character in this true story about a compulsive gambler. The recklessness of his gambling is staggering – Mahowny was a bank vice-president who lost $10,200,00 of the bank’s money before he got caught. I’ve never been much of a gambler, but through Hoffman, I think I understand the compulsion. The point is not to win. Mahowny is a smart guy, and knows the odds are stacked against him. The point is to watch the money, to continue with the task at hand, to keep going, to lose as much as possible. Minnie Driver and John Hurt play secondary characters – Driver plays the fiancée who does not understand the depth of Mahowny’s addiction, and Hurt plays a casino manager who is fascinated by how heedlessly the money is lost. They have little consequence in Mahowny’s life, for he is too busy staring at the blackjack table. Hoffman’s performance is not showy – it’s effective. He gives us a man with a focus that’s amazingly single-minded. Owning Mahowny is more interesting than it is entertaining, but I recommend it for those who want an intense study of peculiar behavior.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I’m shaken, not stirred.